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Whale catch prompts Alaska delight

Many people around the world are opposed to whaling, but for some communities in Alaska it is part of their traditional way of life. BBC Radio Five Live's Stephen Chittenden is in Alaska looking at a series of issues affecting people who live there.

When the first whale of the season is caught, word spreads through Barrow in the very north of Alaska fast.

Carving out the whale meat in Barrow, Alaska
The catch is a cause for celebration in the community

Stand on a freezing street corner and you'll soon know. An Inupiat woman slows her big red pickup, winds down the window and shouts to everyone and no-one in particular.

"They got one! They caught a whale," she exclaims before speeding down to the shore.

When Sarah Palin chanted "Drill baby drill!" during the vice-presidential debate, the Governor of Alaska was calling on Americans to explore the vast reserves of oil and gas that lie under the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off Alaska's north coast.

Her comments weren't appreciated among the Inupiat Eskimos of Barrow, as they prepared for autumn whaling. This is the biggest moment in their calendar.

Migration patterns

Harry Brower Junior, chairman of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, has serious worries about the effects of oil and gas exploration.

"As a whaling captain I'm opposed to offshore industrial activity. There's no means of cleaning up in the arctic in the event of an oil spill," he says.

Child looks into whale's mouth in Barrow, Alaska
Whaling has long been a part of the community's way of life

And he fears the whales' migration patterns may be disrupted.

"Of course it's going to have a big disruption. We've learned from the research that's going on in the Beaufort Sea," he says.

The oil companies say they have pumped millions of dollars into research, and are working with the native populations.

Shell's general manager in Alaska, Pete Slaiby, says they understand and support the needs of the Inupiat people, and withdraw from all operations when required.

"We are not there when the migration occurs. So during the whale harvest we go; we're gone; we're not there; we are miles and miles away," he says.

Captain Makalik

Out on the Chukchi Sea the crew of a tiny aluminium powerboat have harpooned and killed a 40ft (12m) Bowhead whale.

They say a whale weighs a ton per foot, which makes this one about 60 times heavier than the vessel which hunted it down.

Twice a year the Bowheads migrate along Alaska's Arctic coast. They swim north in spring, now they're all heading south. All except one.

THE LEGALITIES OF WHALING
Under the global moratorium on commercial whaling, hunting is conducted in three ways:
Objection - A country formally objects to the IWC moratorium, declaring itself exempt. Example: Norway
Scientific - A nation issues unilateral 'scientific permits'; any IWC member can do this. Example: Japan
Aboriginal - IWC grants permits to indigenous groups for subsistence food. Example: Alaskan Inupiat

It's taken many hours to tow the leviathan a few miles to shore. Its fins are tied up out of the water; then a rope is looped around its tail and back to the boats.

Once beached on the black sands of Barrow, giant bulldozers drag the whale across the road to platform of corrugated iron, ready to be butchered.

It's past midnight and well below freezing, but a large crowd has gathered to join in. Trucks and cars are parked in a circle all facing the whale. Their headlights illuminate the billowing steam that rises off the carcass.

Children dance on the whale, high above the ground. They slide down its side then run back up the tail for another go.

A gap suddenly appears in the ring of vehicles, which break into a fanfare of horn-sounding. Whaling captain Ross Wilhelm, whose Inupiat name is Makalik, has arrived.

He stands in his boat on a trailer which is towed into the ring.

Makalik's flag of two black rifles crossed on a white background flutters from the boat's VHF aerial. It's the first time it's flown, in his debut season as a whaling captain.

He climbs down from the boat and strides across to his whale. Everyone wants to shake his hand or pat him on the back. But the crowd steps back when an Inupiat elder hands Makalik a large curved knife and invites him to make the first cut in the whale's thick black skin.

'Our food'

This is what Barrow has been waiting for. A huge cheer goes up as the knife sinks through the skin and into the blubber. At his feet, the snow turns dark red.

Dozens more men come forward with knives and hooks to slice the whale's body into long pieces, each over a foot thick. As each is peeled away, a group of boys drag it along the ground using ropes, then race back for the next.

Eating fresh whale meat in barrow, Alaska
Whale meat is eagerly eaten by local people

A group of Inupiat women gather in a tent to prepare the first small bits of "maktak". They are passed round and eagerly eaten raw by workers and spectators alike.

The whale is stripped of its skin and flesh in just a few hours.

The next day, the whaling captain's flag flies from his house. It's an invitation to share in the kill. A queue quickly forms outside. Each visitor goes away with a bag of mixed whale blubber, meat and organs.

This has been the Inupiat way for thousands of years. To those who say whaling is cruel, Harry Brower issues an invitation.

"They should come here and have a bite," he chuckles.

"This is our food. We don't have a garden in the back, or grazing cattle out here. What we have are our marine mammals. And that provides our food."



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